The way of life at Ban Ta Mui on the Thai-Lao border is rapidly changing with ongoing development of the Mekong River. Social and environmental impacts have been accumulating as large-scale hydropower and other projects take their toll. Can a policy shift towards biocultural rights and responsibilities reframe a renewed respect to nature, from dispossession to nourishing diversity and living in accordance with the true spirit of the Mekong River?
In a small corner of Ubon Ratchatani province in Thailand lies Ban Ta Mui, a Lao-speaking mixed ethnic community of Kuy and Tai Lao people who have been dwelling within the Mekong River Basin for millennia. The village is wedged between the Mekong River on one side and mountains on the other with an abundance of local foods that nourish local livelihoods and culture. Here, time seems to flow differently and more slowly, though the fast pace of meeting market demands is increasingly present.
As a PhD student researcher studying the relationships between local communities and the Mekong River, fieldwork in the past few months has shown this other world located at the fringe of capitalism. The people of Ban Ta Mui are productive in a different sense. From the biocultural paradigm, nature and culture are intricately linked, co-evolving within complex systems through time. The well-documented relationship between regions of high productivity and high biodiversity suggests that these areas are also high in cultural diversity, which ranges from local food and hunting practices to languages and other norms shared across ethnic communities.
This is also true for Ban Ta Mui, whose deep ecological knowledge guides their specific relations to animals, plants, and the biophysical environment beyond one of resource users and resources. Working with nature and the temporal logic of the sun, the sky, the streams, and the seasons, they are part of a social-ecological system that yields and maintains high biocultural productivity and diversity.
Being well in local terms is tied to a dense set of relations among people and between them and the natural and spiritual world. Ban Ta Mui villagers spend much of the day alternating between work, rest, socializing, and maintaining close bonds within the community. They pay respect to the spirits or divine powers dwelling where they fish or forage by stating aloud their intentions and asking for good luck. The generosity of the forest and the Mekong River translates into communal acts of kindness, such as gifting and sharing food. “Ma der ma der, gin khao (Come, come eat [with us]!)” has been a common call as I walk around the neighborhood. This call is also for friends and neighbors, who are only expected to bring a container of sticky rice along as it is the main commodity to be bought from outside the village. Other foods can be hunted, foraged, or cultivated in relative abundance. Life here is certainly not without struggles, but according to one elder, they can eat whatever they want, rest whenever they want, have fun through livelihood practices, and live well when food abounds.
The way of life at Ban Ta Mui should not be thought of as something of the past. Their fused animist and Buddhist realities and local wisdom have co-existed with science and modern technology, welcoming what is useful and relevant, and abandoning what is not. Mobile data coverage here is reliable, and most families have at least one smart phone for which they use to stay connected with family members in the city. Some hunt for mole crickets (Gryllotalpidae), a local delicacy, by putting on a mating recording from YouTube. Others experiment with seed selection and planting conditions on riverbank gardens. It seems that as long as they have access to and can live sustainably with the forests and the streams, what truly matters for their life and well-being can continue on.
Trouble on both fronts: between conservation and development
Ban Ta Mui’s unique beauty is entangled with processes of dispossession emblematic of the struggles of many local and Indigenous communities around the world. Such dispossession is sometimes for claims of conservation and other times for development. For Ban Ta Mui, it is both. These policies are marred with injustice given the absence of meaningful participation and local decision-making power. Despite the earliest settlement dating back before 1858, the establishment of Pha Taem National Park in 1991 has taken away their customary land rights and limited their access to the forest. Most villagers do not even have a title deed to their home.
Their troubles to sustain local livelihoods with small ecological footprints are exacerbated by ongoing Mekong development. Once prosperous and untamed, the Mekong River has been experiencing impacts from hydropower projects and other large-scale anthropogenic activities, such as sand mining and channelization. Daily fluctuations of river flows, decrease in fish catches, algal blooms, and loss of riverbank gardens are now a common reality for riparian villagers living along the river’s course. The Mekong’s densely rich, brownish-red waters have unseasonably turned blue in recent years. This phenomenon known as ‘hungry water’ occurs when a river is starved of nutrients and sediments and can cause more erosion of channel beds and banks. Cumulative social and environmental impacts are generally known. As highlighted in a recent review by Soukhaphon, Baird, and Hogan (2021), these include impacts on the life cycles and migratory patterns of fish and birds, sediment transfers, food and economic security, multi-generational family connections, and the overall well-being of local communities. Plans to further develop and utilize the Mekong River however continue unabated.
Importance of floods and flood pulses
Floods are common problems in modern water management and urban planning, but to those adapted to the rhythms of the river, they are a key part of the seasonal cycles that underpin high biocultural productivity and diversity. From May to September, the water level of the Mekong River would naturally rise from snowmelt of the Tibetan plateau and, more importantly, from the monsoon systems that create complex river dynamics. As the river expands and overflows, she connects terrestrial and aquatic habitats and stimulates the exchanges of valuable silts and nutrients that enrich the floodplain, like a mother providing and nourishing her children.
Flood pulse signals the migration of fish upstream, and the clearing of previous vegetation by floods opens spaces for different plants and animals to thrive. These floodplains, including flood-adapted forests, provide favorable spawning and feeding grounds for fish, insects, birds, and various other species. They are also important economic and cultural sites for Mekong riparian communities.
Disruptions to the Mekong’s functioning from hydropower projects, from Manwan Dam in China (1993) to Xayaburi and Don Sahong dams in Laos (2019), have caused widespread and systemic impacts to all lives adapted to the river’s cycles. Now at 13 operational dams on the river’s mainstem and over a hundred more on her tributaries, the Mekong’s transformation from free-flowing to dam-regulated is increasingly apparent. While economic gains from hydropower production are immense according to the Mekong River Commission (MRC) (estimated at USD 160 billion for the Lower Mekong Basin by 2040), they accrue to certain sectors and certain ways of living rather than to those like Ban Ta Mui, whose energy needs and ecological footprints are currently low. The costs are also as great if not much more, as not all ecological and cultural losses can be priced. Worse yet, losses to local communities have commonly been devalued or disregarded under the dominant capitalist and modern order.
How impacts cascade
“Mun pean pai. Mun boh muon keu gao. Pla gor boh lai. Puug ayang gor boh dai. Nam mun boh tuam!” (Things have changed. [Life] is not as fun/happy as before. There’s less fish and [we can’t] grow as much [because] it doesn’t flood anymore!) said one female villager I spoke to. This message is similarly echoed throughout Ban Ta Mui as I sought to understand the cascading impacts of the Mekong’s unnatural flows.
Hydropower operations have significantly transformed the quantity, timing, and quality of flows that sustain the well-being of ecosystems and human communities. As they can exacerbate riverbank erosion, the Thai Ministry of Interior ordered the construction of 330 km-long riverbank revetment structures along the Thai-Lao border. Universal design and the lack of local participation have caused greater impacts than necessary on sensitive riparian sites. In the case of Ban Ta Mui, some ecologically and culturally important riverbank areas have been displaced and an unusual sand mound has formed.
Flow-related impacts have spread through slow, seemingly small changes. Diminishing availability of fish, clams, wild edibles, and other hunted or foraged foods from the Mekong River means fading local ethnic cuisines and higher reliance on money and markets. Unable to grow enough cotton, Ban Ta Mui villagers must purchase them to make mattresses, blankets, and pillows. Those who raise cows and water buffalos must travel further to reap young grass that normally grow in abundance when the flood recedes. River-based rice cultivation (na saeng) in seasonal ponds have entirely disappeared due to unpredictable flows. This has also put an end to a biocultural way of prohibiting the use of destructive fishing gear and of conserving fish in shallow pools. Increased time spent on earning an income is gradually replacing time spent on rest and building communal bonds. These economic, ecological, and cultural impacts ripple through the very fabric of Ban Ta Mui life, but they are rarely, if ever, considered in policy dialogues.
Entangled futures of Ban Ta Mui and the Mekong River
Ongoing development of hydropower in the absence of a regional rights-sharing and arbitration mechanism are driving the Mekong River toward the same course as other mighty rivers that rarely reach the sea. The impaired Mekong whose values are reduced to a specific human use is vulnerable to further development, including water diversion (e.g., Khong-Loei-Chi-Mun) and channelization projects. The MRC has often invoked the term “Mekong Spirit” or “the spirit of cooperation and respect for one another’s rights” to explain their approach to water diplomacy in the Lower Mekong Basin. But what of the ‘Mekong spirits’ that exist within and animate the river? In Thai and Lao, rivers are Mae Nam, which directly translates to ‘mother of water’. She is imbued with desires to ebb and flow freely and to nourish a diversity of life along her path. Local Mekong communities know this well. Their intimate knowledge of the river is key to maintaining the ‘Mekong spirits’ and biocultural diversity. With their little input thus far, collaboration at the state level cannot guarantee sustainable development, well-being, nor justice.
For Ban Ta Mui, the future seems stunted and troublingly uncertain. Ban Koum Dam (also known as Salavan Dam), one of the two Mekong hydropower projects at the Lao-Thai border (the other being Pak Chom Dam) is planned to be located near the village, and feasibility surveys have resumed since October 2021 according to Ban Ta Mui residents. If constructed, it would contribute to an erasure of an already rare, dignified, and nonviolent way of living with the river as well as an extirpation (local extinction) of various plant and animal species.
A shift toward discussions of rights and responsibilities is needed to lay the foundation for a just and equitable Mekong River governance. Such conversation is currently absent, and extreme power differentials between upstream and downstream states as well as between the state and local residents are primarily to blame. The questions of who has the right to water, when, in what quantity, and at what quality should not wait until severe droughts and water shortages hit. They are already relevant in the context of a dam-regulated river. Further considerations should be given to theories of rights that transcend the human and nature divide, which are being pushed forward by activists and local and Indigenous communities across the world. Many are advocating for biocultural rights derived from collective rights to self-determination and a long history of stewardship.
Growing recognition of the river’s personhood and the rights of nature also have transformative potential, not only for changing dominant ways rivers are used as a resource, but also for renewing relational values that have always been part of local and Indigenous communities. This could mean restoring the status of the Mekong and other rivers as Mae Nam, as a mother for whom humans have certain rights and responsibilities to. How far these concepts can be integrated into law remains to be seen. Perhaps, that’s not the point entirely. A move toward a (re)new(ed) consciousness on the Mekong River more specifically, and nature more generally, is one of the best chances for continued existence of the Mekong, Ban Ta Mui, and all other communities of beings entangled in between.
Rapichan Phurisamban is a Vanier Scholar, a Public Scholar, and a PhD candidate at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Her interests span fields of political ecology, cultural geography, development studies, decolonial studies, and science and technology studies (STS).
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of Heinrich Böll Stiftung.